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UNC vs. Virginia: Three Things to Watch

From Charlottesville to Charlotte.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With some help from a couple of other programs, the North Carolina Tar Heels have the opportunity to go from Charlottesville to Charlotte by the end of the day on Saturday. But Carolina has to first take care of business when they step onto Scott Stadium at noon.

UNC must find a way to harness the fourth quarter performance last week. However, this will be a tall task with injuries and pressure mounting.

When the South’s Oldest Rivalry commences for the 127th time Saturday, here are three things to watch.

Keep UVA’s Passing in Check

THB provided this warning before the Duke game with Riley Leonard having a modest performance in the two previous games. Leonard put up a career-high in rushing yards and had his third-best passing performance of the season.

The UNC secondary did not start last week’s game on time. In the first half, Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis was slinging it like Kenny Pickett. He completed four passes of greater than 20 yards in the first half and tacked on a 50-yard completion during the Panthers’ final scoring drive of the game.

The fourth quarter was a complete turnaround for the entire team, but especially for the secondary. It was such a reversal from the lackluster defense in the first half. During Pitt’s last possession of the game, Storm Duck’s open field tackle on third down and break up on fourth down put the nail in the coffin of the game. Hopefully this was a bellwether of the defense down the stretch.

Last season, Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong did whatever he wanted through the air against Carolina. Armstrong threw for 554 yards in the 59-39 Tar Heels victory. His passing performance set a UVA single-game record and the most ever against UNC.

This season under first-year head coach Tony Elliott, Armstrong is a completely different player. Armstrong has thrown for 1,826 yards and six touchdowns. Armstrong’s total offense ranks fourth in the ACC, however, he is just completing 55.7 percent of his passes and has thrown nine interceptions.

Carolina’s secondary must not allow Armstrong to find his form.

Replacing Noah Taylor and Des Evans

Noah Taylor, Carolina’s sack and tackle for loss leader and former UVA starter, is out for the season after a non-contact injury against Pitt. Des Evans, starting defensive lineman and former top recruit from the state of North Carolina, is also out for the season with an upper-body injury.

These are two mighty holes to fill in the front seven.

Fifth-year senior Chris Collins stepped in after Taylor’s injury last week and made a positive impression on defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. True freshman Malaki Hamrick may have more snaps as well. Be on the lookout for Jahvaree Ritzie and Kaimon Rucker to share the snaps from Evans’s absence, with Rucker even taking some snaps at jack.

Break the Curse

UNC has not won in Charlottesville since 2016, and head coach Mack Brown has never won in Hoo-Ville. The loss in 1996 still haunts Brown, who mentioned it in his press conference on Monday.

With just minutes left in the third quarter of that 1996 battle between no. 6 UNC and no. 24 UVA, cornerback Dre Bly had a pick-six to put the Tar Heels up 17-3. Linebacker Brian Simmons tallied another UNC interception and brought Carolina down to the Virginia 10-yard line.

Two plays later, the Cavaliers scored their first touchdown in nine previous quarters on a 95-yard interception return. After a Carolina three-and-out, Virginia started their drive with 8:13 remaining and scored the game-tying touchdown with 3:07 left in the game.

Another UNC three-and-out led to a 41-yard pass that put UVA on the UNC 15 with 1:47 left, and the game-winning Cavalier kick went through the uprights with 39 ticks on the clock. Brown and these Tar Heels have a chance to exorcise those demons on Saturday. This team, like the one in 1996, has just one loss on the season.

However, this UNC team is undefeated in conference play and the conference championship game, which did not exist in 1996, is there for this team’s taking.

There’s no time like the present.